Tactics and Tools

Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times—Mentoring Letter June 2013

Author Greg Koukl Published on 05/31/2013

Greg uses Solomon’s advice for engaging an opponent in a biblical way

June 1, 2013

Sometimes you will encounter a daunting foe who is, in some way, your superior—a feared professor, a respected elder family member, an articulate supervisor or executive at work.

When this happens there is a temptation—especially if you’ve had some training or done some study in apologetics—to “show what you know,” to step into the fray armed with all your facts and take your superior down a peg or two.

In situations like that, it’s a good idea to consider Solomon’s counsel from Proverbs 25:6–7:

Do not claim honor in the presence of the king, And do not stand in the place of great men; For it is better that it be said to you, “Come up here,” Than for you to be placed lower in the presence of a prince...

Solomon’s point is simple: In the company of superiors, don’t start high, positioning yourself as their equal. You might get knocked down. Instead, start low and move up. Earn your place at the head of the table by the quality of your contribution.

Years ago, I witnessed a powerful example of this wisdom at a conference called “Design and Its Critics.” I’d wrangled a seat in the audience of a professional gathering where Intelligent Design proponents had invited their strongest detractors—secular scientists and philosophers—to engage them through a point/counterpoint format of aggressive, academic peer review.

During the Q&A after a presentation by ID leader Stephen Meyer, Dr. Clifford Matthews, a senior member of the evolutionary scientific establishment, laid into him, vigorously and (in my view) uncharitably attacking his ideas.

I was stunned. Glancing around me I wondered what would happen next.

Dr. Meyer never missed a beat. Completely unperturbed, he addressed Dr. Matthews by name, expressed genuine respect for his work, thanked the professor for what Meyer had himself learned from the scholar’s research over the years, and confessed being flattered that such an accomplished academic would attend his own presentation and offer a critique.

Stephen Meyer wisely positioned himself as the lesser before the greater. Though Meyer was an accomplished academic in his own right, he engaged Dr. Matthews with his hat in his hand, as it were, not as the professor’s equal, but as his student.

Meyer then systematically, graciously, and decisively answered the criticism.

Notice the pattern. Meyer started low, and then moved up. He generously acknowledged the superior status of his opponent, and then earned the respect of the audience by the quality of his contribution, made even more impressive by his grace under fire.

It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. In fact, I’ve had my own opportunities to put it into play.

When I debated Deepak Chopra for an hour on national TV, I realized I was facing a David and Goliath situation. Chopra was the most well-known New Age guru in the world, with 20 million book sales to his credit. I was the guy no one had heard of.

I knew I could not compete with a man whose first name had become an international brand in itself. Not only was the tide against me, I knew I would seem “uppity” if I tried to position myself as Chopra’s peer. I wanted to come in low, respectful, and courteous, and then launch my critique from there.

With this in mind, I made two strategic moves. First, I would show deference to my opponent by always addressing him as “Dr. Chopra”—never the familiar “Deepak.” Second, instead of pitting Dr. Chopra against Mr. Koukl, I set him against Jesus Christ. “Dr. Chopra says this,” I’d point out, “but Jesus said otherwise.” The audience, then, would be forced to choose between Deepak Chopra and Jesus of Nazareth.

There are other advantages to coming in “lower.” You won’t have as far to fall if you get knocked down, and there’s lots of room to ascend in the eyes of others if you acquit yourself well.

Never forget Solomon’s point: In the company of superiors, start low and move up. Don’t start high and risk getting knocked down.